Music and Lyrics (2007)

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My face is in the butter! Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant) is the washed up Eighties pop star who’s reduced to playing Knott’s Berry Farm but thankfully he hasn’t had to take part in TV’s Battle of the 80s Has-Beens (“that Debbie Gibson can take a punch,” he remarks). Not yet.  A saviour comes calling – Britney-a-like dance queen chart diva Cora Corman (Haley Bennett), with her Buddha-in-a-thong philosophy, needs a song and his manager (Brad Garrett) pitches him the project. He can’t get the words right for Way Back Into Love with a pro writer but the girl who waters the plants in his apartment just comes up with rhymes that scan off the top of her head. Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore) happens to be a creative writing grad from the New School, traumatized by her relationship with affianced tutor Sloan Cates (Campbell Scott) who has immortalised her in a famous book.  Her older sister, weight loss guru Rhonda (Kristen Johnson) is Alex’ biggest fan and is thrilled when they work together. But they’re on deadline and when Cates turns up in a restaurant Sophie is tongue-tied and Alex fights for her reputation in an amusing scuffle. Alex and Sophie wind up in bed together and she goes to one of his daytime concerts. At a pre-recording session they find that Cora has turned their moving music into a sexy Indian rap and Sophie wants out. They fight and he accuses her of being Cates’ ‘Sally Michaels’ ie a passive aggressive control freak.  But the song still lacks that final verse demanded by Cora and Alex is desperate for a return to credibility  … This is a very funny, droll take on the best period in pop ever!!! Grant is excellent in the second of his four teamings with writer/director Marc Lawrence, who is also responsible for some of the songs and Barrymore is a terrific, nervy comic foil.  It all comes good in the end at Madison Square Garden where true feelings are expressed musically. Wait for the credits sequence with Grant as his former PoP! idol self, with perfect mullet in a Wham!/Duran crossover band. Good, heartwarming fun.

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Enchantment (1948)

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If houses could talk, what stories they could tell! Producer Samuel Goldwyn had high hopes for this intensely romantic intergenerational family drama adapted from the great Rumer Godden’s novel, Take Three Tenses.  A young American ambulance driver Grizel Dane (Evelyn Keyes) turns up uninvited at the home of her great uncle General Rollo Dane (David Niven) during WW2. Gradually he reveals to her his own story of lost love, with his father’s ward Lark (Teresa Wright) who moved in with their family following her parents’ tragic death and he regales her with a story of his older sister’s terrible jealousy of the little girl, persuading Lark into a marriage with an Italian count and getting Rollo to a high military commission by serving in Afghanistan. Rollo swore never to return to his home until his sister died. In contemporary life, Grizel falls for pilot officer Pax Masterson (Farley Granger) – who happens to be Lark’s own nephew. The intertwined stories make for quite the compelling romantic tragedy but it never hits the peaks you think it could, perhaps the complex serial flashbacks put paid to the tension and sustained drama. Goldwyn was so angry with the immensely moving Teresa Wright for her reluctance to promote the film that he terminated her contract and pretty much her career. Niven was criticised for the silver wig he wears as he plays the aged Rollo (which he does very well) but in fact Goldwyn had forced him to dye his hair which remained various shades of purple for the next two years, making his children scream and his dog bite him. His career with Goldwyn also suffered but his adventurous take on tackling older characters would pay off a decade later in Separate Tables, winning him an Academy Award.  This was the last feature shot by the great Gregg Toland who died a few weeks after the shoot, from a coronary thrombosis at the age of just 44.

High-Rise (2016)

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How do you adapt and replicate JG Ballard’s dyspeptic dystopian worldview when it’s so site- and time-specific? Screenwriter Amy Jump took his 1975 novel, a cautionary tale of the collective unconscious in a tower block for posh people, and left it there – in 1975, when the shock of the future was immanent.  Sick building syndrome wasn’t a thing then but anyone who’s ever lived in an apartment knows how much further consensus must reach in order not to descend quickly into chaos with fellow inhabitants – overflowing dustbins, thin walls, the smell of cooking, that neighbour who conducts noisy sex sesssions on their balcony, the drug dealer who calls the wrong door number at six in the morning with the come-down heroin for speeders. Yes, we’ve all sadly been there. Here the sickness is apparently part of the deep-seated anti-social need for anarchy rooted in the perfect design of the building itself, whose architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) lives on the top floor, apparently dictating things not so benignly, his wife riding around on a horse like a latterday Marie Antoinette. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is the physiologist (specialty:  peeling faces from skulls) who moves in and his neighbour documentary maker Wilder (Luke Evans) unravels and seems to contaminate everyone else. Laing has guilt about his treatment of a colleague (he jumps off the building, no diving board required) and the non-stop erotic parties turn into something mad and dark and murderous.  The descent into atavism is slick and fast and people are screwing each other, torturing rivals and giving into all sorts of debased derangement. There are so many cars in the huge carpark nobody can find their own. The trash isn’t collected. The electricity’s off. There are bodies in the swimming pool. We go back to where we entered this horror story,  eating a dog on the balcony. The names have a lot of meaning – Laing clearly harkens to that scourge of psychiatric voodoo RD Laing, Wilder says it all (this is a battle between id and superego) and Royal is the out of touch monarch whose plans for society are rampantly expunged as people become convinced that the higher the floor the happier they’ll be.  The plebs are closing in. A design for life. Capitalism rocks! Un film de Ben Wheatley.

Happy 80th Birthday Warren Beatty! 03/30/2017

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Actor, producer, writer, auteur, legend. Warren Beatty turns 80 March 30th. From his discovery by homosexual playwright William Inge to his part in the Best Picture debacle at this year’s Academy Awards he has never seemed too far from the significant centre of writing and cinematic artistry that is Hollywood. He hero-worshipped Jean Renoir, George Stevens, the directors he felt that mattered and who could help him. He starred for Elia Kazan in Splendor in the Grass, that startlingly emotive Freudian psycho-fest that commenced his relationship with Natalie Wood, one of a series of Oscar-nominated actresses to whom he hooked his star over the following two decades. He became an actor-auteur proper in the wake of Mickey One, that New Wave-inspired drama about a Lenny Bruce-type comic made by Arthur Penn. When he bumped into novice screenwriter Robert Towne at the office of their mutual psychoanalyst he found the right man to do a major overhaul of a script called Bonnie and Clyde and changed cinema history.  (For more on their working relationship and friendship see my book ChinaTowne:   https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490790984&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+lennon. ) The pair decamped to London and were part of the Swinging Sixties – those 200 or so people who all seemed to have sex with one another in 1967 – and when Towne saw a Restoration play there he thought up an idea for a movie about a heterosexual hairdresser based in part on an ex’s stylist who lived like a rooster in a henhouse. It became Shampoo several years later and it’s a profoundly caustic, sad, hilarious take on what was wrong in the US using Election Night 1968 as its fulcrum. Beatty plays George Roundy, the promiscuous motorcycle rider who is outwitted by absolutely everybody and he is superb in a role which yields unexpected pathos. It was a very personal story but also a political one, an interest which he’d espoused since he and sister Shirley MacLaine had campaigned for George McGovern. He had previously tried to express his worries with the government and the existential dread behind it with The Parallax View, a stunning look at the major conspiracy theories of the time. He pursued his interest in screenwriting (he’d persuaded Towne to give him a co-credit on Shampoo) with Heaven Can Wait, a light comic remake which had unexpected success following his brutal and rather low awards campaign.  He expended a lot of energy making Reds, about American communist John Reed, which despite its epic political text is really about free love, infidelity and naivete. Following the failure of buddy comedy Ishtar made by his friend Elaine May (who occasionally did uncredited script rewrites for him) he made the comic strip extravaganza Dick Tracy which didn’t do as well as everyone had predicted. He bounced back with the gorgeous gangster flick Bugsy about the notorious mobster, a film that introduced him to wife Annette Bening (which came as a surprise to his girlfriend of the time who allegedly found them in flagrante in his trailer one lunchtime). They starred together in Love Affair (with a script assist again from Towne) but he really bounced back with the hilarious political satire Bulworth, one of the best films of the Nineties. If he never backed the winning political horse – Gary Hart, John McCain (close friends) – he has taken his time, too much, perhaps, in making films that he wants to make a splash. His latest, Rules Don’t Apply, a paean to Hollywood and Howard Hughes that was a box office flop with an ill-advised wide release, was preceded by a rare interview in Vanity Fair. He revealed that he had been at a gathering at Peter Lawford’s the evening of Marilyn Monroe’s death which Lawford always said she hadn’t attended. He said that he had walked on the beach with her and played piano and she’d been drunk by sunset. He didn’t say what time she left but she was found dead in her home a couple of hours later. But that wasn’t the story that made the newspaper headlines – it was the ‘revelation’ of the number of women he’d allegedly slept with, which he’d debunked. Don’t look here, look there, has always been his mantra. David Thomson got it right when he constructed that half-biography, half-fiction about him, Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes. He has retained long friendships and associations and been loyal to collaborators and made a lot of astonishingly persuasive and lengthy phonecalls, usually commencing with the line, What’s new, pussycat? Which tells its own story. People never really see what’s in front of their eyes, or what really matters. That’s why Beatty kept the envelope on Oscars night. He knows what’s important. Life. Reality. Now that’s a real star.

Denial (2016)

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I had quite forgotten the outcome of the 2000 libel suit taken by Holocaust denier/falsifier British Hitler historian David Irving against Penguin Books as a result of academic Deborah Lipstadt’s claims about him and his fellow travellers.  She is played by Rachel Weisz, he is played by Timothy Spall. She’s from Queens and sounds it:  she says what she thinks and has issues with the reluctance of elite British Jews to fund her case since people in the US like Steven Spielberg are backing her unquestioningly (that’s an awkward dinner party). She retains solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) which causes no little hilarity because of his association with the late Diana, Princess of Wales. She finds herself having to deal with a team of lawyers who seemingly speak a different language but are also capable of emotional distance:  she is conflicted particularly when contacted by survivors who want to be heard. Her team don’t even want her to testify, the idea being to box in Irving with his own perverted version of the truth. The real relationship here is the combustion between Lipstadt and her barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson). When they travel to Auschwitz he appears to be late – but he’s been pacing the perimeter, a payoff that happens much later. Their argument 80 minutes into the running time is the heart of the narrative:  he explains to her that this isn’t just about Holocaust denial it’s about self-denial – hers. She finally understands the man who spent a year learning German and who can now quote Goethe to make his point. He rushes off in the evenings rather than indulge her pettiness to prepare – the case is his life.  Wilkinson is very effective and his own emotions are properly managed – reserved for his hard-hitting courtroom performance. This is a fascinating and ultimately rewarding story despite the apparent caricature played by Spall – Irving defended himself on the stand and Lipstadt can’t restrain herself from reacting to his pantomime in front of the judge (Alex Jennings) who during the  final summations appears to be falling for Irving’s shtick (as it were.) A well-integrated interview with BBC’s Jeremy Paxman (he’s meshed into the pictures with Spall) illustrates just how accurate Spall actually is. Weisz is playing a difficult character – wilfully ignorant of British law, spiky and confrontational and unable to understand subtle wordplay or good advice (those legal eagles are all the same) and she taps into all the right feelings – denial,  anger, bargaining, depression, and yes, acceptance.  Her uncontrolled emotionality is what drives the case but it could also derail it. It takes her a long time to get there. Adapted by David Hare from Lipstadt’s book History on Trial:  My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, this is an important work about something that even now appears to beggar belief. And if you haven’t been to a concentration camp and you haven’t experienced the reality of what happened in back gardens all over Germany and Poland and elsewhere on the mainland of Europe with all those infinitely mutable borders and beliefs then this would be a good place to educate yourself. Directed by Mick Jackson.

The Wooden Horse (1950)

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Eric Williams’ true story of an escape by British POWs from Stalag Luft III (a different compound from the one in The Great Escape) receives a solid treatment here by documentary maker Jack Lee from Williams’ own screenplay. It was the first POW movie in a series made throughout the Fifties and stars Leo Genn (a lawyer fresh from the Nuremberg Trials), Anthony Steel and David Tomlinson whose scheme involves a wooden vaulting horse designed to conceal the digging of a tunnel and then to transport them out of the camp and into neutral territory in order to make for Sweden. The real tension only happens outside when they try to avoid being reported to the Nazis by their hotelier and have to prove themselves to the Resistance. This was Steel’s breakout role and Genn is an engaging presence but there are no real thrills here and the director admitted he spent too long shooting some scenes and then had to make up for lost time on a very low budget.

Hue & Cry (1947)

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Harry Fowler is the kid who reads the adventures of Selwyn Pike in the pages of the Trump comic to his gang of Blood and Thunder Kids and becomes convinced that the strip is used as code by black marketeers. The police won’t believe him and he takes on the criminals himself, first visiting the sinister writer Alastair Sim and then working for grocer Nightingale (Jack Warner) who turns out to be central to the smuggling ring. After some false attempts to capture the criminals and stave off a department store robbery, and tying up Rhona (Valerie White) from the magazine, the scene is set for a standoff using Sim to engineer it in his story … Tremendous entertainment from writer TEB Clarke, with vivid performances from the kids running amok in the rubble-strewn bombed-out East End right after WW2. Ealing Comedy was really up and running in a film whose Expressionist leanings (courtesy of DoP Douglas Slocombe) remind one of Emil and the Detectives. Directed by Charles Crichton.

The Boss (2016)

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Michelle Darnell is the orphan who grows up to be a big businesswoman – Melissa McCarthy, to be exact, whose rise to titanic success arouses jealousy and she’s framed for insider trading by her ex, villainous rival Peter Dinklage, going by the name Renault (formerly Ronald). When she gets out of the clink she reinvents her brand through her former employee Kristen Bell’s daughter by virtue of a takeover of the Dandelions, a charitable group of kids that sells brownies door to door – because Bell makes the best ones ever and Michelle sees a billion dollar a year business. One of the other mothers just sees a felon. Then Dinklage sees another business opportunity and a paradoxical way to get back with the only woman he’s ever loved … Co-written by McCarthy with husband and director Ben Falcone (who also produces with her) and Steve Mallory, this trades on the star’s great ability to play a scene and there are some excellent laugh out loud moments. However subtle it ain’t and the lapses in taste prevent it being in the same league as something like Bad News Bears which it weirdly recalls (maybe it’s the kids’ uniforms). Co-produced by Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy, this is just not up to the standard of Spy which was so subversive, satirical and, yes, smart. This manages to be too long and too short and enjoyable and a waste of talent all at once:  is it me?!

Moonlight (2016)

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What’s a faggot? This sensuous journey through three chapters of a black man’s life won the Academy Award for Best Picture and its experimental nature, its subject and its lack of narrative sense all make that a problematic and strange choice. It’s a fairytale without a happy ending – a story about gay sex that avoids showing it directly. Director Barry Jenkins, a Florida SU film graduate, adapted it from an unproduced and very visual play written for a  drama programme, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney which used several voices back and forth to tell a story of a gay boy in Liberty City, one of Miami’s projects. It wasn’t dramatised because it didn’t really work for the stage, structured with three different guys of different ages playing the same character in the course of a day. It was apparently very unclear. When Jenkins found it, he changed it and it now tells the story of Chiron, the son of a junkie single mom Paula (Naomie Harris, who is superb) at three different stages of his life in three separate stories. The first 37-minute chapter (Little) is about him as a young boy (played by the very striking Alex R. Hibbert) getting solace from visits with Juan (Mahershala Ali) a drugs dealer, and his girlfriend (Janelle Monae). Their father-son friendship is sundered when he realises Juan is selling his mom crack. As a teenager (Chiron) he’s a sullen withdrawn kid (now played by a very different looking Ashton Sanders) terrorised in high school, bullied daily for being gay and he takes a public beating directed by the nattily dreadlocked Terrel (Patrick Decile) but carried out by Kevin (Jaden Piner) who’s had sex with him on the beach.  He’s taken away by police. In the final forty-minute episode (Black) we’re introduced in Atlanta to a garish grill-wearing earring-bedecked drug dealer – and it’s him, now played by Trevante Rhodes. He looks like a powerful guy with a bodacious workout ethic but when he takes a call of apology from Kevin (Andre Holland), a decade after the violence, it starts him on a different path. He visits Paula in a drug rehab centre where she’s become institutionalized and she finally seems to comprehend what her lifestyle drove him to do. We follow him back to Miami to the restaurant where Kevin works as a short order cook following a spell in prison. It’s shot superbly but with the art-house touches of a student film – and the shots singling out the adult Kevin lead us to believe we are in black Warhol territory and something major is going to happen. (Do you really think that’s smoke?! Someone remembered Blow Job!)  He doesn’t know why Black is here – but the camera tells us as it sensually caresses Black’s face:  Black practically has an orgasm watching Kevin and the cinematography has us primed for mano-a-mano action. (The shots are separated by several minutes but the intent is clear.) But Kevin has a kid with a girl they knew at high school and he’s on probation after a spell in prison: Kevin is not gay. Their reunion over a few bottles of wine (Chiron doesn’t drink) makes us realise that Black is a hollowed-out man and his confession to Kevin, who introduced him to the phenomenon of physical love, is – eventually – deeply touching.”This is not you,” Kevin tells Black.  So nothing happens. With all those pretty boys! Talk about leading a person on! Naomie Harris is the acting heart of the film primarily because aside from a fine performance as the strung out mom, she appears in all three chapters which are otherwise quite disconnected and Little/Chiron/Black is basically mute. So much of the story’s emotion depends on the heightened expressivity of the actors in the final section and Rhodes and Holland are just breathtaking in their physicality. James Laxton’s camera just loves Rhodes (and Holland too, to be entirely fair…) Black actors often suffer visually because of the lighting issues with skin tone but here they used an Arri Alexa digital camera and worked on the colorising with great attention to detail to achieve a different kind of texture in each chapter. There is however a narrative disconnect between the three sections not helped by the totally different actors with Harris the only source of continuity. (Jenkins and McCraney grew up in neighbouring projects with junkie mothers so there is a hint of autobiography in the story.) And yet despite its major shortcomings it’s oddly memorable. Some readings of this suggest that it’s a story of a boy who finds support from his community. Golly. The community bullied him senseless for being gay and he became a sexy virginal shell of a man who puts people in fear for not buying his supply. This is all foreplay and no … well I told you already. All mouth and no trousers, as it were. Talk about a p***ktease.  Next year:  #OscarsNotRemotelyGayEnough. Watch this space!

Trapeze (1956)

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Burt Lancaster is Mike Ribble, a disabled acrobat who walks with a limp because of a triple somersault that went drastically wrong years ago. Now he’s working as a rigger. Tino Orsini (Tony Curtis) wants to learn the triple and Ribble’s the only guy who can teach him. He doesn’t want to but his ex Rosa (Katy Jurado) persuades him to do it. The men form an act and try to crack the big time but when Italian trampolinist Lola (Gina Lollabrigida) gets between them their plans start to come apart at the seams … Vivid, colourful and atmospheric circus film directed by Carol Reed from a script by Liam O’Brien, adapting a novel called The Killing Frost by Max Catto. The screenplay was credited to James R. Webb but there were uncredited additions by Ben Hecht and Wolf Mankowitz. La Lollo makes her American debut in a starry, well-performed production that shows off Lancaster’s acrobatic skills, well documented by Robert Krasker’s photography (he was responsible for all those tilted angles for Reed in The Third Man.) Curtis is an excellent leading man, full of beauty, brio and bravery. Malcolm Arnold’s score captures the jauntiness and terror of the circus with its captivating sense of danger and daring. The bromance is great fun and La Lollo is an alluring femme fatale, as you’d expect! This was damned by the critics but huge at the box office. Quoi de neuf?!